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I'll Have What She's Having 

Eating at Marnee Thai can be an education in making difficult choices.

Wednesday, Oct 8 2008
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Often, when I go with a group to an Asian restaurant, especially if it's one I've written about, I end up doing the bulk of the ordering. I'm happy, in fact happier, if everybody has a hand in choosing, but sometimes the others are overwhelmed by the long menus and many similar-sounding dishes. How to choose from among half a dozen braised pork dishes at China Village in Albany, the best Szechuan restaurant in the Bay Area (hint: They're all delicious); or the many shrimp dishes at open-until-3 a.m. Yuet Lee on Stockton (where you should try the crispy garlic shrimp, roasted in the shell); or the five or more species of crab at the excellent Hong Kong–style South Sea Seafood Village on Irving (local Dungeness crab in season is sweet, meaty, and cheaper than the exotic imports)? Knowledge is power. Eating often at a place is the key to assembling a swell meal selection. And sometimes it's delightful to hand your menu back and say, "I'll have what he's having." Having someone else order for the table is a rare treat in my life, not to mention counterintuitive. But a recent trip to Marnee Thai with a greedy friend who has eaten there frequently was one of those rare treats — although I couldn't help throwing in my two cents.

Marnee Thai's original location, opened in 1986 in the Outer Sunset (2225 Irving at 23rd Ave., 665-9500), is a snug one-room storefront, compact, boxy, and lined with woven mats. It quickly earned a reputation for excellent and authentic Thai food, garnering numerous awards for chef-owner Chai Siriyarn. A few years ago, he opened another place in the Inner Sunset, where my friend took me and an out-of-town guest on a recent Sunday night.

This second place feels more chic and airy than the first. It's a long, narrow room, with an open kitchen along one side and glass-topped linened tables running the length of the other. Walls are painted in spicy curry colors and hung with gold-framed mirrors and interesting Asian art. My friend, a chef-entrepreneur who travels constantly for work and eats out both for work and pleasure, already knows what he wants, but I can't resist perusing the two menus. There's a densely printed multipage regular version listing appetizers, salads, and soups; and, under main courses, curries, wok dishes, barbecued and roasted meats and fowl, chef's suggestions, noodles and fried rice, and vegetable and vegetarian dishes. (As the menu states, many of the other dishes can be made vegetarian.) There's also a two-page menu of the day's specials.

I can't resist throwing in a couple of suggestions: an avocado salad ($8.95) from the specials list and corn cakes ($7.50), an appetizer on the regular menu. I'm a sucker for avocado and corn. My friend rolls his eyes as if he weren't going to order them. He's eaten them both already this week.

We start with a dish that looks simple: miang kum ($7.50), one plate of fresh spinach leaves arranged around a bowl of dark thick sauce and another heaped with diced red onions, chopped fresh ginger, dried shrimp, diced lime, toasted coconut, chopped red chiles, and peanuts. Oh, and an orchid – for show, not as an ingredient. You slick the spinach leaf with some of the sweet, hot sauce, top with bits of the other ingredients, fold them into a bundle, and pop the resulting crunchy, fragrant bite into your mouth. It's delicious, and almost as much fun to assemble as it is to eat.

The fragile little corn fritters — one of the few dishes on the menu that aren't recommended for takeout, I'm told, as they must be eaten fresh for the best texture — come with a spicy cucumber-and-red-onion relish to spoon atop. They live up to my expectations: The thin batter holds the sweet corn kernels together only until the concoction hits your mouth, and the relish adds brightness, salt, and a more resilient crunch. We also try Thai samosas, stuffed with a creamy curried potato and pumpkin filling ($6.95), and goong sarong ($7.50), prawns wrapped in bacon and thin dough and then deep-fried, served with a sweetish chile sauce. Another delightful appetizer is the fresh egg rolls ($7.25), their cool, translucent dough stuffed with ingredients, some soft, some crunchy — tofu, chicken sausage, egg, cucumber, and bean sprouts, resulting in a careful mosaic and then slicked with a sweet thick tamarind sauce.

From the specials list, we order satay wraps ($10.95), another do-it-yourself dish. The bright-yellow, still-moist marinated chicken breast, served with butter lettuce leaves in which to bundle the meat and your choice of nicely limp and chewy rice noodles, comes with Thai basil, cilantro, bean sprouts, toasted coconut, cucumber salad, and hoisin-peanut sauce.

There's a succulent, mild coconut-milk chicken curry ($8.95), whose star ingredients are tiny baby eggplants, cut in wedges, which I first mistake for green zebra tomatoes. A fabulous pan-fried halibut filet topped with crunchy fried garlic ($10.95), from the specials, arrives atop stir-fried fresh morning glory (water spinach). Spicy angel wings ($7.50) are described as a signature dish, deep-fried chicken wings sautéed with chile-garlic sauce and topped with fried basil, but they're perhaps the only things I'm not instantly in love with. I like the sticky, lip-smacking quality of the sauce, but I find the wings a little too sweet. (A friend who shares the leftovers with me a day later, however, names them his favorite dish of the meal.)

By now I'm almost ready to cry uncle, but no. We continue with an excellent version of pad thai ($8.95), the classic dish of fried rice-stick noodles, bean curd, egg, bean sprouts, peanuts, and still-bouncy shrimp, coated in chile sauce with some bite to it. One unusual, subtle dish becomes an instant favorite: prawn and scallop pad phong ka ree ($12.95), shellfish, onions, and mushrooms with lightly scrambled egg and creamy yellow curry sauce. So, too, does red curry (kang dang) made with sliced, roasted duck ($10.95), with succulent fat between the flesh and skin, plus pineapple, tomato, and bright red bell pepper.

Over and over, my mouth is thrilled by exciting, fresh flavors in thoughtful combinations: fragrant lemongrass; peppery, gingerlike galangal; verdant sawtooth leaves, aka Thai coriander; and sweet kaffir lime leaves. Chef Chai's sauces are enlivened with pastes he makes nightly — recipes for half a dozen are included in his book, Thai Cuisine Beyond Curry (available at the restaurant) — which are unusually fragrant and lively. I'd happily eat my way through the entire menu, but I can't imagine not ordering the exquisitely diced-and-plated miang kum, nor the corn cakes, nor the avocado salad, which is chunks of the ripe green fruit tossed with shredded green mango, crunchy fried shallots, and fat shrimp, coated in a bright citric dressing and topped with toasted coconut. It's amazing, especially with the crunch of the shallots against the melting avocado.

For dessert, we get an exemplary dish of black sticky rice with coconut ice cream ($4.95) and, even better, roti, a lacy, churrolike fried-dough confection ($4.25, $5.25 with ice cream). My friend, who has been happy to share his expertise all night long, isn't happy to share the roti. In addition to the one we order for the table, he gets one all to himself. After tasting it, I know why.

When we exit Marnee Thai and see numerous produce boxes, broken down and neatly bound for recycling, I'm reminded of all the superb fresh ingredients that go into its amazing cuisine that, even more amazingly, costs no more than any run-of-the-mill, tired Thai place in the city.

And next time, I'll be happy to do the ordering.

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Meredith Brody

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